Inside a booth at the recent Back to the ’50s classic car show at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Sven Lynch labored in the sweltering heat over a slim stripe on the side of a black ’36 Ford coupe. Various gawkers had gathered, including a pair of corpulent, bearded twins clad in matching Twins shirts, a pock-marked kid wearing religious slogans, and a parade of purists dismayed that Lynch would dare to gild the lily of a classic auto. Lynch steadied one hand with the other, drawing a flawless canary-yellow line. His panache, not surprisingly, prompted one spectator to inquire about a custom job. “Sorry,” Lynch told the man without glancing up from his work. “By then I’ll be back in Stockholm.”
The Twin Cities boasts not a few pinstripers, but none are as highly regarded as Mr. Lynch—or “Von Sven” as he’s known when behind the brush—who has become the reigning pinstripe king of Sweden. Unlike most of today’s custom painters, Von Sven, a Twin Cities native, is decidedly old-school. He eschews stencils, choosing instead to eyeball a particular hot rod before creating a complex and utterly wicked design on the fly. Each of his pinstripes is unique.
Lynch looks very much like he stumbled out of a ’50s B-movie. He sports a haircut he describes as a “flat-top with fenders,” baggy jeans rolled up at the cuffs, and a black T-shirt that begs to have a pack of cigarettes tucked in the sleeve. The stepson of McKnight Fellow and acclaimed local painter Mike Lynch, Sven has always been drawn to painting, though he was discouraged at a young age from entering the competitive world of gallery artists. “So I got into lowrider bikes,” he said with a shrug.
Exploring this second love, Lynch spent time between the old Missing Link bike shop and the Grease Pit, fixing lowriders, customizing banana seats with found upholstery, and creating mutant bikes with fellow members of the outlaw Black Label Bike Club. Then one day in 1995, Lynch was sipping coffee at Bob’s Java Hut in Minneapolis when he noticed a pattern of elaborate pinstriping on the café walls. Instantly, he was hooked. “I was lucky—a friend gave me some brushes, and other people let me practice on their bicycles,” he said.
Over the years, he perfected his technique, and by 2003 he had found work at Classic Limo, a renter and restorer of custom automobiles. His first paying job involved applying a hard stripe to a Rolls-Royce. “God, that was nerve-racking,” he admitted. “I thought I was working on one of their restoration jobs, something that cost an individual tons of money. But it turns out it was just one of their rentals, so I could make mistakes.”
It was obvious that Sven was a genius at pinstriping. He sized up each car like a sculptor inspecting a piece of granite, eyeing its shape and structure, moving with almost excruciating patience. He is taciturn, to say the least, and talking with him requires a tilted head to catch every quiet phrase. Yet Sven’s art spoke volumes and word spread throughout the classic car community, placing his skills in high demand. He took a job at Yesterday’s Auto in Minneapolis, which brought him an even more exacting clientele.
Despite his celebrity, work in the Twin Cities didn’t earn him enough money to live on. So, like many artists before him, he set out for Europe, where less typical lifestyles are sometimes easier to sustain. At the urging of a friend in 2004 he hopped a plane to Sweden, where the citizenry has a legendary appetite for classic American cars. The Power Big Meet, which claims to be the world’s largest antique car show, is held in Västerås, a suburb of Stockholm.
Sweden wasn’t entirely foreign to Sven, whose biological father owns an apartment there, and whose brother runs a vegetarian restaurant in the city. And Stockholm welcomed him with open arms. Lynch found an artistic home at a “rockabilly mall” called Sivletto, the ad for which features Marlon Brando in leather, leaning against his bike in The Wild One. To get there, patrons must trek to a side street and descend a flight of rickety spiral stairs. Then they enter a warehouse full of old cars, motorcycles, lowrider bicycles, Brando-esque clothing (for the guy, gal, or child), haircuts and pomade, and, of course, malts and Cokes.
According to Sven, the customers are mostly rural Swedes, called raggare, and are typically more blue-collar and a bit more conservative than their countrymen. Perhaps that accounts for their American car lust. Some of the biggest draws for the raggare are the classes that Sven teaches out of his paint shop, which is called Von Sven Kustom DeLuxe. Students learn the time-consuming techniques of striping and lettering, and many of them return to their rural homes to complete their own work.
As it stands, Sven is happy in Sweden. “Yeah, the winters are long—it gets dark around three in the afternoon, and the summer light’s pretty much on all day.” He returns to the states each June to “maintain connections,” working at the car shows and Yesterday’s Auto, before returning to Stockholm.
At the Back to the ’50s booth, Lynch used the butt of his brush to apply a dot of yellow—the crowning touch to the ’36 Ford. The car’s owner beamed at Lynch and whistled. “Perfect,” the man sighed.